Ron Wallace, Oklahoma Cantos (TJMF Publishing, 2011).
Start throwing a word like cantos around and you raise some big expectations. The term immediately brings to mind not only Ezra Pound’s ponderous modernist project but also Dante’s great medieval allegorical epic. Ron Wallace’s Oklahoma Cantos seems aware of these expectations, beginning with a series of commendatory comments by a number of Okie literary luminaries and an introduction by the great Billie Letts. Wallace even includes his own preface to the work, ala Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he, like Wordsworth, declares a desire to make poetry from the voice of the “common man.” All this would be a bit much were it not for Wallace’s constant humility, which balances all the fanfare with a healthy dose of common sense and plain-spoken wisdom. The result is a book that is ambitious enough to generate poetry that matters but humble enough to generate poetry one actually enjoys reading. This is a delicate balance, but, like Johnny Cash, Wallace is able to walk the line.
While the title poem would seem to pay tribute to Pound, it really owes much more to William Carlos Williams, or, if Pound, the Pound of “A Station of the Metro” rather than of the Cantos. Wallace’s “Oklahoma Cantos” is a poem of thirty-two (had he added one more he could have reached Dante’s favorite number) quatrains, each focusing on a precise image from the Oklahoma landscape. Many of the quatrains are quite lovely taken even in isolation, such as number sixteen:
A winding creek bends under remnants
of barbed wire sagging across a shallow gulley,
where fireflies appear in flashes, disappear,
and reappear in tangled vines above the ravine.
This is vivid and recognizable. But the poem’s effect is symphonic rather than cumulative: the quatrains work together to build one larger image of Oklahoma as Wallace sees it, and it’s the whole picture that is really compelling. This is an innovative and interesting approach, one that requires a painterly patience from the poet and that rewards the time of the reader.
As interesting as the title poem is, the, mostly narrative, poems which follow it are, in my opinion, the heart of the book. These poems deliver on Wallace’s promise in his preface to depict the world of real Oklahomans. These poems draw on daily life: the cutting of hay, the changeable weather, baseball. This last topic, in fact, dominates much of the collection, with poems about playing catch with his father and with his son, about Mickey Mantle, about buying a glove, about little league. Although baseball is not a new topic in American poetry, Wallace manages to avoid cliché, mainly by focusing more on the place of the game in his own life than on the obvious and familiar trappings of the sport. The poems, in other words, aren’t just about baseball; they are about Ron Wallace’s baseball.
In fact, Oklahoma Cantos is a very personal book throughout, although not what one would call “confessional” (unless you count open affection for the NY Yankees as confessional), and its most personal aspect is its treatment of the poet’s struggle against passing time. The inevitable loss that comes with time is a major theme throughout the book. The opening poem subtly establishes this theme by enacting the struggle against time in the poet’s imagistic attempt to isolate and preserve brief moments. The theme becomes more overt in poems like “Main Street 1964” which dramatizes the noble but inevitably unsuccessful effort to conquer time through the force of imagination. A similar drama unfold in “Crown and Seven,” as the poet attempts to summon a musical voice from the past but ends up with only “the cold iron wind of February singing through the trees.” In “Moonlight Graham Steps off the Field,” the poet is confronted with “forty years fractured / like a dropped tea glass on a cement porch.” This line both evokes the past in its image of rural Oklahoma summer time and simultaneously mourns its loss. Wallace frequently strikes this elegiac tone, doing what elegy always does: temporary resurrection. Another fine instance of this tone is “In My Father’s Books,” in which the lost father is returned to life by means of marginalia. In a more forceful vein, the short poem “Grey” seems to evoke the tradition of time the devourer in a link between the blank grey sky, the grey hair of the poet, and the grey fur of his cat, who is stalking for the kill a bird as blue as the poem’s always already lost sky. The sum effect of these poems is the keen awareness of how, as he puts it in “One Day you Ride,” “half your life passes like an errant rifle shot.”
The poem I consider to be the book’s finest is also concerned with time, but in a way more subtle and complex than any other poem in the collection. “Learning to Speak Choctaw,” is simultaneously another elegy for his father, a lament for his lost youth, a tribute to “the greatest generation,” and an reminder of the great past and troubled present of a proud people. Like most of the poems after the title piece, “Learning to Speak Choctaw” is a narrative poem, telling of his policeman father’s relationship with a Choctaw veteran and alcoholic living near Wallace’s boyhood home. It is a profoundly moving poem, ending with the father’s sad and stoic advice to his young son to “just keep thowin’ the ball.”
Wallace may mean the title, Oklahoma Cantos, as a reference only to the book’s first poem, but, in the etymological sense, all the poems in this book are Oklahoma cantos, or songs of Oklahoma. In the preface and in poem after poem, Wallace unabashedly embraces a regional approach and poetic identity. Paradoxically, it is that willingness to write in a particular place, struggling against a particular time, that gives the poems their universal appeal. Books like Oklahoma Cantos remind us of what it feels like to be from somewhere, whatever particular place we may be from. This is an accomplishment of which to be proud.